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Christians more likely to oppose gene editing, Pew finds

14 August 2017

Growing human transplant organs in pigs has become a more realistic prospect after scientists used advanced gene editing to remove threatening viruses from the animals' DNA. Thirty-seven genetically engineered piglets have so far been born, 15 of which are still alive.

The research was an "important advance" in addressing safety concerns about possible viral transmission during organ transplantation, eGenesis chief scientific officer Luhan Yang said.

Yang said the world has more than 2 million patients who need organ transplants.

The most genetically modified animals in existence have been created to help end a shortage of organs for transplant, say U.S. researchers. According to the NHS, about 6,500 are on the waiting list for an organ, and past year almost 500 people died while waiting for a transplant. Pigs have been a prime candidate as involuntary organ donors since theirs are about the same size as those of humans.

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The first form of xenotransplantation - using animal blood to transfuse humans was first attempted in the 17th century, though as surgeon David Cooper put it in a 2012 review paper, "perhaps not surprisingly, the results were mixed".

If pig organs were shown to be safe and effective, "they could be a real game changer", said Dr. Klassen, who was not involved in the new study.

To produce piglets, the researchers then employed a standard cloning technique, inserting the DNA-containing nuclei of these edited cells into egg cells taken from the ovaries of pigs at a Chinese slaughterhouse, which allowed each egg to develop into an embryo and implanted it in the uterus of a surrogate mother. The supply is way below the demand and the gap is only expected to grow wider.

The experiment could pave way to commercially available pig organs for use in human patients.

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As it is now, receiving an organ transplant in many cases requires waiting for a donor to die.

Taking pig cells, the team edited them to target and hinder the virus-related DNA, they then cloned those cells and developed an embryo.

These steps "are probably more challenging" than removing the dormant infections, said Yang. This enabled them to ultimately breed pigs with virus-free organs. They used the gene editing tool CRISPR to deactivate all 25 genomic sites.

"Prof Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics, University of Kent, says: "This represents a significant step forward towards the possibility of making xenotransplantation a reality", while Prof Ian McConnell, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Science, University of Cambridge, cautions: "[Organ transplant] is a huge unmet need of modern medicine. In previous work, researchers have used these animals for transplanting heart valves and pancreas.

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Christians more likely to oppose gene editing, Pew finds